This Is What a Just Transition Looks Like

To help a community leave its dirty energy economy behind, advocates must fight for local representation, equity, and retraining that prepares workers for high-quality jobs.
The E.D. Edwards power station

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

When Houston-based Dynegy Inc. acquired the Edwards power plant in Peoria County, Illinois, in 2013, locals were concerned. The company paid essentially nothing for the struggling coal-fired facility, which was outdated and inefficient and had been illegally polluting the Peoria air for years. To some it seemed likely that Dynegy would shutter the plant and sell off its pieces.

“This company comes in from Texas, buys plants like this so they can sell the stuff that’s in it and get out,” Gary Hall, a retired member of UAW Local 974, told the Energy News Network shortly after the sale. “It’s like an old car: You get more money from the parts than from selling the car. But what’s going to happen is those poor people, our brothers and sisters who work in there, will end up with no jobs.”

Hall had probably seen this pattern before. Power plants employ dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people. They support local businesses, from parts suppliers to the restaurants that feed their workers. Plant taxes help fund town governments and bolster local school budgets. When the power plant closes, the surrounding community feels the economic impact in both direct and indirect ways.

But revolutionizing our energy grid doesn’t need to come at anyone’s expense. Done properly, we create room for a “just transition”—a soft landing that respects the needs of workers, community members, nearby businesses, and local governments. The concept has become a central goal of the environmental movement’s quest for an equitable clean energy economy.

Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. “Every location is different” says Lara Ettenson, director of the energy efficiency initiative in NRDC’s Climate & Clean Energy Program. “But there are a few things that are needed in every situation: diverse local representation to ensure the transition plan is equitably designed by and for the community, accessible job training with connections to high-quality jobs, and sufficient funding to make the transition plan possible.”

Local Representation

The Edwards power plant has taught us some valuable lessons on how a just transition plan can work for everyone. In 2013, the year that the plant’s ownership changed, three groups—NRDC, the Sierra Club, and the Chicago-based Respiratory Health Association—sued the owner on behalf of the community.

Local and state environmental groups pushed for Dynegy to take responsibility for polluting Peoria County.

WCBU Peoria Public Radio

Edwards was built in the 1960s and ’70s, and its pollution control systems had not been kept up to date. Although the plant had been violating the Clean Air Act for five years by the time NRDC and its co-plaintiffs sued, neither the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency nor state authorities were actively enforcing the rules.

Fortunately, the Clean Air Act has a citizen suit provision. If the government fails to enforce pollution limits, affected people can take the polluter to court and work to craft settlements that both stop the pollution and provide some financial support for the community. (When Clean Air Act cases are resolved through court orders following trial, the proceeds generally go to the federal government rather than to local people.)

After years of litigation, the owners—now a company called Vistra, which had merged with Dynegy—agreed to settle the case. The dirty, aged power plant would close, and the company would pay $8.6 million in compensation to Peoria-area communities.

How do you make a sum like that work for a region struggling to transition away from fossil fuels and reeling from the associated pollution? The question is increasingly urgent; in 2019 alone, Vistra closed four other coal power plants in Illinois.

In Peoria County, three community groups helped advise the plaintiffs on how to direct the settlement money to where it would do the most good. The Peoria NAACP, Illinois People’s Action, and the Central Illinois Healthy Community Alliance worked with the plaintiffs to solicit proposals for projects to promote job training, lung health, solar energy, energy efficiency, and bus electrification.

“Local representation is a key element of smart transition planning,” says Selena Kyle, the NRDC senior attorney who led the litigation through the settlement phase. “Our partners contributed their on-the-ground knowledge of the community’s needs to help the plaintiffs analyze grant requests and made recommendations about which ones to fund. Their help was invaluable.”

Career Training

Job training, or retraining, is the centerpiece of most just transition programs. Designing the training must take into account the needs of the communities and connect the workers to actual high-quality jobs. Power plant jobs are, in some ways, pretty good ones. They pay well and have good benefits, and until the last decade or so, they were stable. Retraining is often necessary to make displaced workers competitive for similarly high-paying jobs elsewhere. And when a plant closes, there can be ripple effects for other workers—with impacts, for example, on those who provide services to plant employees or who benefit from local property taxes.

Some of the Edwards settlement money will help address the practical, stubborn challenges involved in changing jobs that ordinary retraining won’t solve. Maybe a worker needs public transportation funding to get to a new job. Or perhaps a worker hasn’t written a resume in 20 years and needs some counseling. Fixing these problems can mean the difference between successful job retraining and a wasted opportunity.

Community-Driven Transition Plans

Coal-fired power plants present a conundrum to local communities. While they provide jobs and a boost to public coffers, they also pollute the air and threaten the health of every single person living near the facility. The impacts of a plant’s operations on public health—like lung disease—linger for years or decades, long after it shuts down. A just transition has to address these health issues.

A significant chunk of the money from the Edwards plant settlement, therefore, will go toward supporting the families sickened by the plant’s pollution. Local health-care providers will get money to spend on medical equipment related to lung health and to educate community members about asthma symptoms and treatment.

There will also be money devoted to improving air quality. Electric school and city buses will be purchased to replace diesel buses, which belch significant amounts of particulate matter—the same category of pollution that the Edwards plant emitted in large quantities in violation of the Clean Air Act. Solar panels will be installed on government and community buildings, so that Peoria can at least start to replace its dirty, coal-fired power with clean energy.

Equity

A just transition should also account for the well-being of community members who never worked for the plant but breathed the polluted air and saw very little benefit from the facility. To focus entirely on displaced workers and leave historically marginalized people out of the just transition picture would be, well, unjust. (This is why some groups, including NRDC, prefer the phrase “just and equitable transition.”)

How does the focus on equity play out? In the case of the Edwards settlement, it means ensuring that low-income communities and communities of color—which account for the majority of neighborhoods most heavily exposed to pollution—see a fair share of the investment.

Advocates have fought to ensure that one of the three electric buses purchased with the settlement money, for example, will run right through Peoria’s most economically challenged neighborhood. They’ve also pushed for the area’s low-income households to receive energy efficiency improvements, upgrades they’ve too often been denied because their homes are run-down. In Peoria, money will be available to make the basic repairs required for efficiency upgrades. In addition, advocates have helped channel funding toward the installation of solar panels on firehouses and community centers in low-income neighborhoods.

The clean energy future is bright. With the right policies and community engagement, we can build opportunities for high-quality jobs for displaced workers. We can empower and support communities that have suffered through years of neglect and pollution. And we must strive to ensure that every member of the community benefits. That’s what the principle of a just transition is all about.

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